A Jobs Problem You Haven't Heard About

Farm workers face chronic underemployment as technology pushes them out of their jobs.

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Quick—name the industries hit the hardest in the Great Recession.

People with even a casual interest in jobs numbers can easily list the two that are perhaps most often cited: construction and manufacturing. But because of how the Labor Department—and thus the media—reports the monthly jobs numbers, farm workers are often overlooked. According to data from the Department of Agriculture, the unemployment rate for hired farm workers has doubled since 2007, increasing 8.2 percentage points to 15.8 percent. The only industry with a worse record over that period, according to the USDA, is construction and extraction. This does not necessarily mean that the recession ravaged the ag industry; farm workers may have simply rejoined the labor force and added to the unemployment rate. But it is worth noting that agriculture has a long-standing trend of shedding jobs.

Every month, the nation hears how many jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls, but the Labor Department's monthly establishment survey, which tracks different industries, does not reflect fluctuations in the number of agricultural workers.[See why men are faring badly in the U.S. economy.]

That number has been slowly decreasing since long before the Great Recession ever hit. Thirty years ago, there were over 3.7 million farm proprietors and workers altogether in the United States. In 1991, there were 3.1 million. Now there are 2.7 million, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The subset of hired workers has taken a similar hit, with roughly 770,000 now, compared to over 900,000 in 1991 and 1.3 million in 1981.

Yet farm income has, overall, increased over this period. The USDA forecasts that U.S. farms' inflation-adjusted net cash income will be the highest since 1974.

The employment contraction that agriculture has faced is comparable in proportion to that faced in the manufacturing industry. And indeed, farming is facing some of the same problems as the manufacturing industry—structural issues are creating a tighter labor market and have been eating into the labor force for decades in both industries, even as productivity remains high.

A chief factor is technology, which has allowed agriculture (as well as manufacturing) to grow leaner. "Part of the story that's often not appreciated in manufacturing is the U.S. produces as much stuff as it ever did. It just doesn't need very many people to do it. It's the same story in agriculture. We employ a lot fewer people in agriculture than we used to," says Jesse Rothstein, associate professor of public policy and economics at University of California, Berkeley and former chief economist at the Department of Labor.

This advance of machinery also gives rise to another problem plaguing manufacturing: a skills mismatch. The technology used in crop and livestock production has advanced, and many workers are not educated enough to keep up. "I do interact with a lot of ag producers, and a common issue is it's hard to find good-quality labor, where they can find somebody that they would trust with a machine that costs a quarter of a million dollars," says Bruce Johnson, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Johnson calls these two issues together a "chicken-and-egg" problem: "If a larger-scale ag producer is not getting good labor that they can count on, then what they do is they go with the substitution of capital for labor—they upgrade size of the machinery and equipment and rely on a few good hired workers to run and maintain that in contrast to [hiring] ... lower-skilled people to get the job done."

[The economy added 120,000 jobs last month. How many is that, really?]

Employment is also difficult to count for the ag industry, says Johnson: "When you get beyond the metro areas, the count of unemployment gets to be suspect."

This means that raw data may understate the hardship in the agriculture labor market. Rothstein points out that farm workers, like many construction workers, can easily fall into the gray area between employed and unemployed. "The people who wait outside Home Depot looking for day work—are they unemployed?" he says, noting that such people's employment status shifts by the day.